The French place language at the center of their culture and their politics. But words have failed them in the nearly three weeks of urban violence that has scarred the country's self-image.

Words have failed the French in every way. There have been too many of some words from their politicians -- "scum," for example -- and too few of others. The verbal imbalance has produced a sense of national crisis and no clear sense of how it will be resolved, or by whom.

President Jacques Chirac finally spoke directly to the nation in a televised address Monday after being largely absent from public view during 18 nights of widespread arson and vandalism centered in dreary low-income townships that house Arab and African immigrant families. A somber Chirac acknowledged that, after 10 years in power, he presides over a country confronting "an identity crisis."

That is a startling admission from a leader who has repeatedly asserted a claim to French leadership in European and world politics. It gave an elegiac quality to his words Monday, which were immediately judged in the French media as too little, too late.

The criticism was in itself a measure that the scope and intensity of the violence -- and the fear it aroused -- significantly receded this week. Like Chirac's government, the French press has been holding its breath as thousands of cars, some schools and other government buildings were torched by marauding gangs of youths, who blame their economic and social exclusion from French society for their outbursts.

Such exclusion is a difficult subject for the French to discuss, much less resolve.

Fearful of igniting social tensions, politicians of the left and right have remained mute or talked around the conditions in the Muslim ghettos that have risen on the outskirts of Paris and other French cities. The language of obfuscation, or non-dire as the French say, has cost the national political class enormous credibility with the electorate over the past two decades.

The approved political discourse is crammed with high-minded platitudes such as those contained in a manifesto on Europe that Chirac published one day before the rioting exploded. He promised to "rekindle the European initiative" and pledged that France would work in the next few weeks to ensure that Europe would never "become a mere free-trade area."

Chirac's manifesto skimmed over the stagnant social and economic conditions that helped produce the rioting in France. It called for grand designs for European, rather than French, responses to the nation's accumulating problems. The manifesto seemed to patronize or ignore the French electorate, which had rejected the kind of super-Europe approach Chirac advocated in a constitutional referendum in May.

The problem of language also affects the search for solutions. Because they do not acknowledge racial or religious minorities -- all citizens are French and therefore theoretically treated the same -- the French do not have an agreed term for programs to reduce social inequities created or affected by prejudice. The most widely accepted translation of affirmative action is the oxymoronic term "positive discrimination." This is one time that the French do not have a word for it.

What they do have are two ambitious conservative politicians locked in a bitter struggle to succeed Chirac that may now turn on how they perform, and speak, in this crisis.

The president seems to have stayed out of the limelight in part as a matter of tactics -- to give Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, Chirac's preferred successor, a chance to show that he is in charge. De Villepin's elegant speeches to Parliament, mixing firmness with promises of greater social justice, have lifted his standing in the polls at the expense of his tough-talking rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sarkozy had been riding high on his calls for a radical break with Chirac's statist policies and on a reputation for speaking forthrightly about France's problems -- including the grim conditions of the immigrant townships. But Sarkozy's denunciation of the rioters as "scum" and his threat to "power-hose" them like vermin allowed his opponents to accuse him of inciting or worsening the riots by his use of, well, language.

Voters who have been demanding straight talk from their leaders may not punish Sarkozy for those excesses in the next presidential election, still 18 months away. But Sarkozy's once-compelling strategy of running against Chirac's record and ignoring de Villepin looks less certain as this crisis lets the prime minister move out of his mentor's fading shadow and find a political language of his own.

jimhoagland@washpost.com

President Jacques Chirac on Monday.